Local writer, director, and producer Melanie Oates is home in St. John’s from a few weeks on Canada’s west coast as one of eight Canadian women directors who hooked a coveted spot to participate in the 20th anniversary session of the highly acclaimed script development and director mentoring program Story & Leadership from Women In the Director’s Chair (WIDC).
“It’s always good to have your script scrutinized,” says Oates. “I want to be put through the ringer with questions and suggestions and comments and insults. Whatever it takes to make the script excellent.”
That script is Scattered and Small, Oates’ first feature film project. “It’s about a teenage girl, Tess, who runs away from her home in the bay to St. John’s and shacks up with an older guy who owns a bar downtown,” explains Oates. “She starts going mad, doing everything she can to feel like she’s wild and free. It’s a story about feeling trapped and chasing freedom.”
“I was trying to adapt a short of mine into a feature script,” says Oates. “I was writing the backstory, kind of as a short story, about where the characters came from and how they met. I was more interested in that story than the one I was trying to write, so I kept at it. The guts of the thing came from growing up in a place where I felt like I couldn’t be myself, or express myself, and the need to break free from it.”
With her forthcoming web series The Manor (2016) and shorts such as Bait (2014) and the NIFCO Picture Start Program film Ida Here and There (2016) under her belt, Oates is committed to do the hard work to launch into features and TV and leave obstacles in her wake.
“Being a woman, people don’t just assume that I’m capable of doing things,” says Oates. “There’s no benefit of the doubt. I have to show them. At film festivals and all that, people have responded very positively to my work and I get to keep doing it. That’s the goal, to just keep doing the work. Rihanna wrote a song for me about it. It goes: werk werk werk werk werk werk.”
Oates’ work ethic paid off with her acceptance into the WIDC’s Story & Leadership Program and its intensive process during which eight Canadian women directors-to-watch develop their fiction feature films and web series projects. They work with an ensemble of hand-picked professional ACTRA actors, technicians, and other industry experts in Vancouver and Whistler.
“I applied to the Story & Leadership Program because, in particular, I really wanted to grow as a director,” says Oates. “I wanted to see how I’d do outside of St. John’s. I get so much support here, but it’s important to get off the island and see how your peers are doing it, what they’re up to, and how you stack up. To go outside my comfort zone and learn and grow.”
As a program participant, Oates is in solid company to achieve her goals. This year’s line-up of mentors includes recent DGC Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and WIDC’s inaugural mentor director Anne Wheeler, award-winning WIDC alumnae director Siobhan Devine, writer and Jungian expert Dr. Carolyn Mamchur, screenwriter and story consultant Linda Coffey (These Arms of Mine), actor and filmmaker Lori Triolo (Cold Squad), casting director Maureen Webb, independent producer Lael McCall (Principia Productions), Telefilm Canada’s Lauren Davis and Harold Greenberg Fund’s John Galway.
Then there are the other seven participants. “You should’ve seen these women I was with,” raves Oates. “Incredibly accomplished, powerhouse women – we like to say “nasty women” – who taught me so much and are now really great friends. And just being associated with the WIDC opens doors, you know. It’s like I’ve been vetted now.”
Back in November, Oates flew out west to immerse herself in the program. “The first part was in Vancouver,” explains Oates.
“That was ten days of story work, working with actors, blocking with a cinematographer, fight choreography. Real good stuff. Then from November twenty-eighth to December fourth we went to the Whistler Film Festival. We got to pitch and meet with people from Telefilm, the Harold Greenburg Fund, CBC and others, which was a wicked opportunity. Plus we got to take in all the panels at the festival. See films. Ride a gondola to the top of a mountain for a women filmmakers’ event, unfortunately called ‘Women on Top.’ There was an outdoor hot tub too. So we can’t say nothing steamy happened.”
Now back to the chill of another Newfoundland winter, Oates will continue the program’s development process, if she can tear herself away from Netflix.
“Over the next three months we have follow up with our mentors through Skype meetings and things,” says Oates. “We had to set goals to reach over that time. It’s good to have someone to be accountable to. That helps curb my TV binge watching. Although, I’m watching The Sopranos for the first time, so it’s hard Mark, b’y, it’s hard.”
As for shooting Scattered and Small, Oates and her producer Christ Hatcher are aiming to go to camera in 2017, but they realize how a year can turn into ten between the development of a film and its eventual release. In the meantime, Oates is in no danger of running out of things or people to stay busy with.
“I’ve got a few pots on the stove,” reveals Oates. “My web series is finally going to launch this winter. People are invited to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. It’s taken forever. Or two years, which is pretty normal in the film and TV world. Allison White and I got some funding for two projects we’ve got on the go. One is a feature film called Sweet Angel Baby, and the other is a television drama which we refer to as the Untitled Social Work Project. I’ve also got this god forsaken novel I’ve been working on for four years. It cries out to me in the night.”